The Houston Texans' season had a disappointing end on Sunday, when they were defeated by the New England Patriots 41-28 in the AFC divisional playoff game.
"I think every team in the NFL knows how good that opponent is," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "If you're going to achieve something, you're going to have to go through them at some point. This organization will keep battling to do that."
Despite the heartbreaking loss, a few dozen fans braved the cold temperatures and lined up outside Reliant Stadium to welcome home their team at 2 a.m. Monday. Duane Brown got out to greet the small crowd. He also shared his thoughts on Twitter.
"Wanna thank my teammates for a hard-fought game and memorable season. Been an honor going into battle with you week to week. Love y'all. And thank y'all fans for the continued support! No one will work harder than me this offseason and we will return stronger next year," Brown tweeted.
"My teammates, I love y'all! A pleasure bleeding out there with you. Godspeed on everyone's journey. Houston, you'll get every ounce of fight in me until the day I hang up my cleats," Arian Foster tweeted.
The game started on a positive note. Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 94 yards, but he was brought down at the Patriots 12 and the Texans settled for a field goal. Houston scored 10 points in the final minutes of the first half -- but still trailed 17-13.
And, after Matt Schaub moved Houston into New England territory in the fourth quarter with a chance to pull within a touchdown, his floater was intercepted by defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich.
That essentially clinched the game for the Patriots and sent them to their seventh AFC championship game since the 2001 season.
"There's no good landing in this league unless you're playing a few weeks from now," Kubiak said. "Every landing's a crash."
The Texans were 11-1 with the best record in football before losing to New England and then again in their final two games. They lost on the second weekend of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
"It's always difficult when your season ends unless you're the last team standing," Schaub said. "It's difficult to stand here with the realization that your season's over.
Tom Brady got his 17th postseason victory -- the most for any quarterback in NFL history, throwing for three touchdown passes to lead New England (13-4) to an AFC title game rematch with the Baltimore Ravens. The two-time NFL MVP completed 25 of 40 pass for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think the two best teams are in the final," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we."
Seldom-used Shane Vereen scored three times, twice on pinpoint throws from Brady. Wes Welker caught six passes for 120 yards in the first half and finished with eight catches for 131 yards.
That helped make up for the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured an arm that kept him out of five games in the regular season, and running back Danny Woodhead.
"Shane had a great game, just a huge growing up moment for him, very special," Brady said. "There were a lot of guys who made a lot of plays."
Vereen scored the Patriots' first two TDs on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass, capping his biggest pro performance with an over-the-shoulder 33-yard catch early in the fourth period. It was Brady's 41st postseason TD pass, behind only Brett Favre (44) and Brady's childhood hero, Joe Montana (45).
"I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said. "Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class."
New England's defense helped put away the Texans. Rob Ninkovich's leaping third-quarter interception stopped a drive, and six plays later, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 6-yard score.
Schaub threw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but couldn't get the Texans within 10 points.
Unlike their 42-14 loss here a month ago, the Texans didn't fold early. J.J. Watt, their dominating defensive end, bothered Brady. And, when they fell behind 17-3, they managed to get back into the game.
Arian Foster did all the work after Manning's second big kickoff return, this one a 35-yarder that had 15 yards tacked on when kicker Stephen Gostkowski brought down Manning with a horse-collar tackle. The Pro Bowl runner covered all 47 yards on a five-play drive and his 1-yard run -- he barely squeezed into the end zone -- made it 17-10.
Houston forced a three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Texans another shot just before halftime. They got close enough for Shayne Graham to kick a 55-yard field goal as the half ended.
But the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter for coach Bill Belichick's 17th postseason win, third behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19).